I don’t know how long I’d been alone in the desert before I found the angel.
When I first escaped from the mines, my only concern was avoiding recapture. I’d quickly lost track of how many days I spent huddled beneath any meager shelter I could find, hiding from potential patrols and the sun’s blistering heat; how many nights I spent putting as much distance as I could between myself and any of the inhabited camps. The terror of those first weeks is still enough to wake me at times, my heart pounding in my chest as I remember running, stumbling, crawling in the darkness in my desperation to avoid recapture; my thirst growing, my lips cracking and bleeding, my own acrid blood the only moisture left in my parched mouth. I’m sure I became delirious, hearing noises that weren’t real, starting at every touch of the sere desert wind, until I was afraid to believe the first oasis I stumbled upon was anything more than another vicious hallucination. By the time I realized that no one was coming after me, that slaves were apparently so plentiful it wasn’t worth my captors’ efforts to track me down, my careful accounting of how much time had passed since the slavers raided my world was long abandoned.
I think I had managed to survive nearly as many months since my escape as I had in the backbreaking travail of the mines, though I was no longer sure I was any better off. At least in the mines I’d been fed regularly, food that was nourishing if unpalatable. There had been some shelter from the extremes of heat and cold, but most of all there had been companionship. The work crews were always a mix of many races, making communication between the slaves difficult if not impossible. I’d come to believe this was deliberate on the slavers’ part, a means of defusing any possible collaboration between the workers—but we learned quickly enough that crews who couldn’t cooperate didn’t survive for long. We looked after one another, as long as we were together, though each time a deposit played out and we were shuttled and marched to another site, the crews were shuffled—another way of preventing any plotting among the slaves. Still, even if we couldn’t speak to one another, it helped just to know there was another body beside you in the darkness, someone else who shared your suffering and cared that you survived another day, if only so they wouldn’t have to pick up your share of the work.
As the weeks and months passed, my body grew gaunt as it learned to function on little food and less water; my skin burned, peeled, and toughened, turning dark as my hair bleached pale under the searing sun. I grew more acclimated to the extremes of daytime heat and nighttime cold, hardier as I trudged through the bleak desert landscape in search of the next source of shade and water. I had little to drive me forward but the stubborn determination to elude my captors. Even when I slept, in those brief hours when I found a bit of shelter or my limbs could simply carry me no farther, my dreams returned to the horrors of the mines, the anguish of what I had lost, the empty hopelessness that stretched before me.
Until I saw the body sprawled brokenly on the blinding desert sand, I didn’t realize how much I’d missed companionship. I’ve always been a loner, even on my home world, but spotting another being in the distance, obviously not a slaver but perhaps another escapee like myself, set my pulse racing. The loneliness of my months of solitude suddenly welled up inside me at the prospect of relief. Surprised by the urge I felt to run forward, I forced myself to approach warily, though by now I knew the slavers would never have set so elaborate a trap; there was nowhere for miles that anyone could hide, in any case. As I drew nearer, I realized there were no footprints other than my own in the sand, and my heart sunk. If the body had lain there long enough for the erratic winds to erase its tracks, the chance of it being anything more than a lifeless carcass was slim.
When I got closer still, I noticed the wings.
I hadn’t seen them at first because their colors, beige and brown and tan feathers melding together, nearly disappeared against the rusty desert sands. The wings were long and powerful-looking, and one of them hung canted at an angle that clearly indicated a break in the main supporting bone. Almost without my volition, I reached forward to gently touch the graceful arc; the feathers were smooth and soft beneath my fingertips. My breath caught as I realized this was not another dream or hallucination, but a fellow living being. The touch of something that was not harsh sand or harsher stone sent a thrill of delight trembling through my senses.
The angel moaned and stirred. I quickly drew back my hand.
There were legends of winged beings on my planet, but I had no more believed in them than in the deities they were purported to serve. Perhaps the legends were based in reality after all, I thought as I cautiously rolled the unconscious being to one side, careful not to put any pressure on the damaged wing. The face I revealed made my breath catch in my throat. The man—for the injured entity was definitely male—was perhaps the most beautiful being I had ever seen. His skin, abraded and covered with sand, was a warm honey-bronze, which had undoubtedly helped protect him from the sun’s scorching rays. Long, silky lashes brushed high cheekbones; narrow, finely sculpted lips parted slightly with each puff of breath; dark tendrils of hair waved from a smooth forehead, tumbling down the man’s slender neck. How had such a vision of perfection come to a place of such barren desolation?
I brushed aside the silky curls, my torn fingertips gently exploring the soft skin of the being’s throat until I found a pulse. I had no idea if the speed or strength was normal for the stranger, but at least it confirmed he was still alive. If I wanted to keep him that way, I knew I was going to have to move him to somewhere sheltered, at least until I could examine the damaged wing and make sure there were no other serious injuries.
I had planned to keep walking until I found another of the rare spots where underground water ran close enough to the surface to support a few stunted trees and smaller vegetation. I owed my survival to these scattered oases, experimenting until I’d learned which plants were safe to eat, digging under the tree roots to reach fresh water, sometimes even catching a small lizard or other creature. Mindful of the fragile ecological balance, I tried not to stay in one place for more than a few days, but I couldn’t spare the time now to search for a new haven. Carefully, I slid an arm around the injured man’s back, below the place where the wings extended from the filmy tunic he wore, and wrapped my other arm beneath his knees. The stranger did not stir. His body felt hot against my skin, but I couldn’t tell if that was due to the sun or a fever or was simply his normal temperature. There was so much I didn’t know, but for the first time since I’d been brought to this accursed planet, I was looking forward to finding answers.
Staggering to my feet, I started back toward the shelter I’d just left, carrying the angel in my arms.